Friday, May 24, 2024

How ‘Gone Home’ Subverts Genre Expectations and the Conventions of the Medium Itself

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Disclaimer: due to the nature of this article, spoilers for Gone Home will be unmarked and plentiful. It is strongly recommended readers play the game before reading. Additionally, character spoilers for several more-recent games (including Catherine and The Last of Us) are present.

Video games, by the very definition of the term, are interactive. Most often, they have some sort of points system that rewards players for a job well done; there are usually punishments of some form for dying, even if it’s just a screen proclaiming “GAME OVER” before restarting. Video games have conflict of some form, often a combat system, and they require a measure of skill to complete and experience the full narrative.

Gone Home has none of this.

It’s interactive, of course. Players, through Katie, can explore the family house, will find notes from Sam, and learn about her parents’ situation and how it changed while she was abroad. The setpiece, the Greenbriars’ home, even looks like something out of a horror game: a huge multiple-story house, darkened, with flickering lights, ominous messages on the answering machine, a storm raging outside. Sam’s notes talk about how the Greenbriars didn’t accept her relationship with Lonnie, how Lonnie and her were on a definitive deadline, and how Lonnie had finally left her and she couldn’t reconcile that with how subversive her thought processes were.

Players enter the attic, lit with a nerve-wracking red hue, and find Sam’s sleeping bag to be empty. It’s not a huge stretch to expect to round the corner, only to find Sam hanging from the rafters.

But she’s not. While the flickering lights are explained by simple wiring mistakes, the messages on the downstairs machine fall into context when Sam’s last note kicks in: Lonnie deserted the military and begged Sam to pick up the phone and join her. They’re not messages from someone who is scared and alone; they’re messages from a teenager deeply in love, desperately wishing for a happy ending–and earning it.

But what about Katie’s conflict? What’s actually there, what’s the obstacle keeping Katie from her goal?

Furthermore, what even is Katie’s goal?

Narratively, there isn’t one. Of course, you could extrapolate that she wants to find out what happened to Sam, due to the note on the door at the beginning insisting Katie not try to piece together the events of recent months. It’s not like Bioshock Infinite (retrieving Elizabeth), The Last of Us (carting Ellie to the next town), or even Amnesia: The Dark Descent (unraveling the mysteries of Daniel’s past, as per his own instructions). Instead, Gone Home bucks trend by giving players the freedom to explore, with a mystery at hand that’s more about wandering around than an actual mission. It’s not necessarily something absolutely new–there definitely exist games that don’t give explicit goals–but it’s something that goes against the majority of video gaming.

Even the exploration itself is unusual. Like first-person shooter games, Katie can move and look around and interact with the world around her, but there are very rarely any obstacles in her path. Instead, nearly every piece of scenery is built to flesh out the game world and make it feel that much more living: tissue boxes are branded and set down where logically there would be some; Sam’s room is littered with cassettes and other items teenagers in the 1990s would own, messy to boot; hallways still have open boxes, fresh from the family’s move. In fact, there is only one puzzle in Gone Home that legitimately impedes player progress: Katie must find the code to get into Sam’s locker and progress with a key. Even that puzzle, however, feeds into the narrative: it is within the locker that we learn about Sam and Lonnie’s relationship.

While Gone Home subverts horror tropes in its setting and traditional conventions of video games as a whole, it also goes against one major tendency in fiction: it portrays a queer romance as not only positive but hopeful.

Not all media does. For every Blaine and Kurt (Glee), there are a Willow and Tara (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Russel and Kevin (Geography Club), Lafayette and Jesus (True Blood), or Bill and Frank (The Last of Us). Sure, Willow finds another girlfriend, and there are media in which queer romances survive, but as a young gay man, it’s disheartening to see so many portrayals of failed queer romance.

It bears saying that it’s not even that a romance failed that’s the problem–it’s that it feels like overwhelmingly, romance plots in fiction featuring heterosexual couples most often succeeds, and this is why Gone Home is so important. Sam and Lonnie are teenagers, melodramatically in love. They have parents who don’t understand it and are barely really learning about themselves. It’s something that resonates with me, bringing up my memories of being a teenager, and I’m sure that it evokes emotion in other LGBT people, to say nothing of those outside that group. Letting Sam and Lonnie survive with hope doesn’t merely buck the creepy atmosphere but the idea that queer people cannot experience a healthy relationship.

Gone Home portrays a queer relationship as every bit as equal and hopeful as straight relationships in fiction. In a gaming landscape where queer characters can be as layered as Persona 4‘s Kanji or Catherine’s Erika but are more often either skirted around or portrayed as stereotypical as the police in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, if even present at all. Furthermore, the game is easily available on Steam, accessible from any computer that can run it, and is only $20 (US). It’s easy to find and relatively inexpensive, two criteria that are important for LGBT+ youth that may be interested in positive representation.

Although Gone Home‘s lack of traditional game elements may turn some people away from it, that lack of it has brought about discourse on the very nature of video games and the argument of video games as art. Furthermore, it has one of the few positive portrayals of queer romance in video games. If you’re still reading this article and haven’t played the game, you may want to check it out.

Here’s a link to its Steam page.

Have at it.

Image courtesy The Fullbright Company

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